Author’s note: This article, and the growing popularity of police abolition, would not exist without the organizing efforts of Black police and prison abolitionists. This article is influenced heavily by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Mariame Kaba. I am writing this piece in the hopes of changing minds and sparking conversation, but I cannot overstate the extent to which Black abolitionist organizers have been making these arguments for generations. I also must emphasize that my understanding of police abolition is abstract; for Black abolitionists, it comes from lived experience.
As the police lynchings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others have shown, police officers do not, have not, and never will keep Americans safe. Unless, like me, you are White and wealthy, the police are not meant to protect you. The violent police riots against peaceful protesters have led some White Americans to recognize the reality that Black Americans have lived for generations: police are anti-Black thugs with fascistic power, and only the abolition of police as an institution can bring justice to Black communities.
To understand why we need police abolition, first consider the history of police. The first professional police forces in America had one purpose—to protect the private property of wealthy Whites. In practice, this took two different forms. Slave patrols in the South suppressed Black uprisings and maintained the brutal system of slavery. White militias organized to prevent Black slaves from breaking free. Professional police forces in the North protected the private property of large corporations and their wealthy owners. They guarded shipments of goods and violently broke up strikes to weaken the labor movement.
The nature of the police has changed very little. Police murder Black Americans three times more than they murder White Americans. There is no doubt that police antagonize Black Americans. Police exist to criminalize poverty and prevent the forceful redistribution of wealth. They harass poor folks and protect private property, forcing poor people to remain in poverty. No officers can be labeled as “bad apples” when those officers are doing their job exactly as it is meant to be done, both historically and statistically. Furthermore, there can be no good cops when they all perpetuate a vicious anti-Black structure.
In discussions around police violence, some will explain why body cameras or retraining are the solution. But these reforms, as activist Mariame Kaba argues, are not meaningful or effective. Take body cameras, for example. Reformists say that having video of police lynchings will increase accountability. But the evidence is in, and it is incredibly ineffective. One only needs to see the hundreds of videos of police officers murdering Black Americans to understand that video evidence is not enough.
Retraining police is similarly ineffective. A new website, 8cantwait.org, lists eight procedural reforms affecting police conduct that they say would vastly reduce police violence. Both New York and St. Louis have already implemented four of their reforms. St. Louis has among the highest rates of police killings in the country; New York, one of the lowest. Comparing cities’ policies with their rates of police killings, there is little to no correlation. Police reforms are far too contingent upon the beneficence of officers who feel no moral obligation to the community. In fact, most police do not live in the city they serve. Officers thus consistently violate policy and do not face consequences. Reformists enact massive spending increases to police departments for tiny shifts on the margins.
Any reform that does not aim to end policing only reinforces the legitimacy of a structure that is illegitimate in nature. Police have no moral jurisdiction over Black and poor Americans. The first police officers were slave catchers. One does not end the violence of slavery by asking for a better trained slave catcher, or a slave catcher with a body camera, or even a slave catcher who looks like the slave.
Instead, this moment calls for police abolition. A society in which agents of the state can viciously attack oppressed citizens with impunity is unjust. The only reforms that will reduce police violence are those which reduce policing, both in size and scope. When the New York Police Department stopped proactively policing communities, crime reports substantially lowered. Successful reforms are not small tinkering changes that fine tune how policing operates or asks police to be kinder. Successful reforms are abolitionist reforms. The ultimate goal must be a world without police.
Many argue that abolishing the police is impractical. You may be wondering: what do we replace police with? And I would ask you, who would you want to approach you if you had the cops called on you? If you were experiencing homelessness, you would want a city employee who can direct you to a shelter and bring you a warm meal. If your driver’s license was expired, you would want a Department of Motor Vehicles employee to notify you, not an armed agent of the state who could kill you because of your skin color. If you were being abused by a significant other, you would want a social worker who could peacefully de-escalate the situation. There are many situations where a proper solution does not require an armed responder, but as a society, we have grown so used to thinking of the police as a solution that we have lost sight of that reality.
Opponents of abolition often hold abolition to an unreasonable standard. How, they ask, will we prevent crimes from occurring? Kaba makes clear that the current system is failing in that regard when she points out that no more than five of one thousand rapists end up in jail. Kaba says that “when people tell me, ‘What are we going to do with all the rapists?’ I'm like, what are we doing with them now? They live everywhere. They're in your community, they're on TV being outed every single day.” Police and prisons do not, as Kaba highlights, deter violence. Neighborhoods with the most aggressive police presence are not the safest. The police do not prevent violence in those neighborhoods. They are simply another gang roaming the streets, but with no ties to the community they terrorize.
Police abolition would entail an immense preventative reduction in violence. In New York City, for example, the police department budget is $6 billion, and the prison budget is $3.3 billion. The total city budget is just shy of $90 billion. One can imagine the massive expansion of life affirming resources that the city could invest in as they cut funding for police officers. Housing, food, healthcare, clean air and water, and other basic necessities could be provided for all people if our government stopped funding a militarized police state. These would improve lives and lower the likelihood of violence.
The existence of police creates the very problem police supposedly solve. We have been socialized since birth to believe that having professional murderers police poor and Black communities makes us safer, even though this is opposed to basic justice.
Police abolition is fundamentally a project of compassion. Abolition is grounded in the belief that human beings are inherently good: that we do not need a standing army in every single town in America for people to be loving towards one another, and that it is better to feed the hungry than to police them. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and the thousands of other Black Americans murdered by police died at the hands of a callous institution. What better way of honoring their memories do we have than building a new world filled with love?
Opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Gate